It’s that underwater moment before something serious happens. Someone’s pulled a weapon, you’re about to declare your long held feelings the person opposite or the doctor’s about to tell you the results.
In this case, I’m in a car that’s definitely going to hit someone. Time is elastic, the inevitability weightless. It feels like a photograph of someone falling, only this image is about to come alive.
Time accelerates through the collision, the impact detonating us back into the present, everything suddenly a rush as the dull thump of her hitting the bonnet is immediately followed by her head cracking against the widescreen. She rolls off sideways, the car finishes braking to a jolting stop.
The silence buzzes, the shock settles in. I know music’s still coming through the speakers but I can’t hear it. Morality seems to be physical and watching us.
I get out of the car and walk hastily back towards the woman, who’s lying prone in the middle of the road. It’s 3 a.m. and it feels completely unreal. It’s an adrenalized cocktail of confusion, guilt and interest, with each element influencing the next and taking fleeting precedent.
I’d estimate the woman is in her fifties. She’s conscious, holding the back of her head as she gazes up dumbly, like a baby in the crib. The adrenaline, playing tricks, almost makes me smile, but I swallow it in time. Nonetheless, I feel strangely detached, a void in the place the more acute guilt should be rushing into, though I’m yet to figure out why. A dazed exhilaration rises, the kind you get when involved in something big. This is new, foreign to the tedium that represents most of life; let’s see where it goes. Kind of hollow though, and very soon drowned beneath the awareness that we are severely outnumbered having just hit someone in a decidedly dodgy area.
How did this crowd gather so quickly? There are ten people on the scene, emerging unseen from the shadows into the dull orange glow of the streetlights. They’re speaking in languages I don’t know, openly conspiring. They seem to be affiliated with the woman, but it’s not entirely clear.
We’re still in the middle on a main road and I’m trying to project a sense of innocence, waving down an approaching car to prevent further carnage,
“Shall we move her?” I offer, just to say something.
“She’s broken on the inside, you can’t move her, you fucking idiot,” the aggressive response. In English, at least. The woman we hit is conscious and the impact seemed exaggerated in proportion to the speed – around 10kph – at which we hit her, so I doubt that’s the case, but being resoundingly on the back foot, I’m in no position to declare such thoughts.
The white flowers on the Hawaiian Lei I’m wearing are in my eyeline and come into sudden, guilty focus. I try to discreetly take it off, though the gold jacket, my height and the fact I’m one of only two white people around undermines any attempt to be inconspicuous.
Thoughts quickly turn to danger assessment, figuring out how to keep things calm. These thoughts seem to float on the surface of water I’m beneath though. I can see the logic, but can’t access it. I just stand there dumbly for the most part, trying to focus on making sure nobody is behind me so I’ll be able to see any possible violence erupting before it lands.
Unbeknownst to me, the other white person involved, my friend Julian, also the driver, is dealing with a man who’s opening the doors of our car, which is now parked at the side of the road. He’s a Big Unit, and has taken one of our jackets from the backseat in a bid to thieve it. Julian notices, grabs it back and throws it in the car before locking all of the doors. Luckily, Big Unit appeared to be extremely stoned; he’s just standing there vacantly stroking the jacket rather than a more effective stealing effort. It’s the kind of bizarre the middle of night revels in, rules over.
Julian joins me by the woman lying in the road. We exchange a look filled with questions. The whole scenario feels somehow artificial.
Whichever way you look at it, we have ourselves a situation.
Helicopter shots of Cape Town are inevitably gorgeous; the vibrant eponymous colour of Green Point, the mountains soaring strong over the density of the city centre, the sun soaked beaches of Camps Bay peeling around the outside.
These images make it seem like an idyllic, fantasy island. In many respects, it is, but the images rarely show the suburbs that extend beyond the edge of frame. Easy, when enjoying sunset cocktails in Camp’s Bay, to forget about the miles of tin shacks by the airport. Easy, when relaxing in the garden of the affluence of Claremont, to forget Cape Town’s in the top ten most violent cities in the world. Easy, when shopping down at the V&A Waterfront, to forget the rape epidemic tearing the country apart. The inherent beauty usually succeeds in hiding the ugliness, but not always. On the drive down the M3 into town, you pass the homeless sleeping on the banks of the Castle of Good Hope. Invariably, they’re black or coloured. The historical hangover of the colony and apartheid lingers.
Of course, though racial divides are awful, you wouldn’t want sterility across the board – cities thrive on their contradictions, become dynamic and vitalised. Cape Town derives so much energy from the diversity, the multiculturalism. Everyone is represented, for better or for worse.
Long Street is where the various worlds collide. Described as a backpacking Mecca with myriad bars and nightlife, yet not somewhere you’d be wise to leave your car overnight. It is both the place to go and the place to be wary; a place to keep your phone in your pocket, if brazen enough to take it out at all, according to the hyperbole I was sold when first arriving. The nightlife is decent, the usual rules apply with regards to not getting robbed anywhere: don’t be an idiot.
It’s there that Julian and I have been out, tumbling through bars. There’s some friendly hassle from beggars on the street as we move between places. Their routines are sculpted, an opener it would be rude not to answer, building a little rapport before they get to business – the milk they need for their sick child, the number of days since they’ve eaten – always sympathetic with room for escalation of demands. In the bars lining the street, the parties continue. No matter how fast or purposefully you walk, they’ll be by your side hundreds of metres and turn offs away, breaking into a jog if necessary. They’re friendly, but they want something, if usually dignified enough to mask their desperation. Initial naivety has by now given way to wary caution, “sorry mate, not tonight.”
Eventually, we head home. A sense of sobriety has descended, Julian feels alright to drive. I know he’s probably over the limit, but I’ve driven when over the limit, too – it’s not always as simple as the numbers, and as common knowledge goes, leave your car parked on Long Street overnight at your own peril.
Of course, you’re not thinking ‘worst case scenario’ at this stage. Running someone over when probably over the limit is significantly worse than having your car stolen.
If Long Street is the beating heart of the city, the M4 is one of its main arteries. We’re driving along it towards my place in Salt River. A month beforehand, an exchange with the taxi driver dropping me of at my then new abode tutted at the idea of me living there, “it’s very dangerous.” In my experience, it was anything but. Islamic calls to prayer seem to be ringing out most of the day over a community with every ethnicity represented. A strange car addiction, too, on sunny days a walk around the neighbourhood will find at least one car on each road surrounded by men in dresses changing the tyres. You suspect they did the same last week, a hobby rather than necessity.
On the drive home, we’re still at least fifty metres away, probably closer to seventy or eighty when I notice them; two women, crossing the road ahead. They’re moving slowly in a way that seems almost deliberate. Stranger still is the fact they haven’t looked in our direction for incoming traffic once. Their heads seem resolutely turned the other way.
Their presence is so obvious that I don’t bother to point it out to Julian. It looks so strange I begin to doubt my eyesight, just how drunk I am. A mirage maybe, an illusion. The closer we come, the more purposefully they seem to be looking the wrong way, and they seem to be slowing down their walking pace, almost following the car’s prospective path. We’re slowing down, slowing down, but they are too, and there’s not enough braking distance left. The collision is happening.
The first woman narrowly misses the right side of the car; the second hits the windscreen directly in front of me in the passenger seat.
Five long minutes later, things are spiralling out of control. Tension rising, tempers flaring. Julian is standing his ground –
“What the fuck were they doing in the road? They didn’t even look at us!”
“We know what we saw.” The response, the subtextual promise to fudge the facts deliberately left hanging between us.
A car with flashing yellow lights on top approaches and stops. It’s a taxi driver, rather than the police car I’d initially hoped for and feared in equal measure.
The taxi driver gets out and assesses the situation. He shouts at Big Unit to get away from our car, which we hadn’t noticed he’s trying to break into again. The taxi driver tells us the police station is just one hundred yards ahead, we need to report it. With the tacit understanding that Julian’s probably over the limit, and thus, in the eyes of the law, one hundred per cent to blame, this doesn’t seem like a good option.
The woman we hit, still lying in the road, is now animatedly shouting what appears to be instructions to her friends, though it’s not in a language either of us understand. The stance of her friends changes:
“Pick her up, put her in your car, take her to hospital.”
“I thought we couldn’t move her? Why don’t we just call an ambulance?”
“No. Don’t do that.” It’s too assertive. Something’s definitely up and anger is beginning to boil over. We are severely outnumbered and impending violence is edging into the frame, steadily closing in. I’m still periodically glancing behind me, more so now given I hadn’t noticed Big Unit slip around us towards our car moments earlier.
“Come on, we’re going,” Julian instructs.
He starts striding back to his car and I gladly follow. I have no idea if we’re planning to report it, but it’s not a time for questions and more people have started emerging from the shadows. The crime rate in this area is high, we don’t know what’s in anyone’s pockets, there is ire and drunkenness.
As we go, Big Unit starts yelling insanely, with two people restraining him from getting at us. The woman who told me the victim was “broken on the inside” is trailing me:
“You want this to go away? Pay us our money, take her to hospital.”
“What?” I ask, still walking.
“Pay us our money,” she says, as if I didn’t understand what she meant. I stopped, turned around and cut her a look,
I get in the car and lock the doors with the incident beginning to make sense. Nothing is said as we slowly pull away, still under the spell of the episode.
We don’t get far. Three police cars are outside the nearby station I’d forgotten about, one stopped in one of the central lanes. As we crawl closer, an officer circles round the front of that vehicle and in to view, beckoning for us to slow down.
It’s a sickening, doomed rush; my heart is in a vice. I’m only glad I’m not in the driver’s seat, but feeling even guiltier for it as my friend’s about to take the fall. Well, maybe. I don’t know him well enough; he could easily floor it and we’d be out of sight before anyone could chase.
Julian stops the car and begins to wind down his window. A thought strikes him and he pales,
“Ned, the fucking beers.”
The footwells of the backseat are full of empty beer bottles. The most cursory search would reveal them immediately. With the police officer already in line with the front of the car, we try to subtly throw our jackets over them without arousing suspicion.
Then, the officer is upon us.
“What happened back there?” The officer asks. A pregnant beat follows.
“Yeah, we hit her,” Julian sighs, before steeling himself. “She was in the middle of the road! Walking so slowly she was almost still. Didn’t even look at us coming.”
At this point, the taxi driver pulls up along side us too, the one who’d told us to report it to the police. He starts shouting something to the officer, again in tongues beyond me. Julian and I sit in silence, convinced that he’s sealing our fate; probably a night behind bars for me, perhaps months before bail is even considered for Julian.
The officer looks back towards the scene of the incident. I don’t look back, but I know it looks ridiculous, the amount of people in the middle of the road. We can hear their voices shouting, but it appears to be at each other as none of them are approaching us or the officer.
“Where do you live?” He asks.
“Salt River. We’re two minutes away.”
The officer doesn’t react. He just casually beckons for us to drive away. We are, again, stunned. We slowly drive away. The relief almost chokes me.
At the next traffic lights, the taxi driver pulls up beside us. We glance left to see him giving us a conspiratorial thumbs-up before driving away. I do, of course, reciprocate – he’s a knight in our eyes, who knows what would have happened without him there as an outsider witness – but the nature of it gets me thinking. Did he think he’d helped justice be served or did he think he’d helped us get away with it?
Home, hosed, we speculate. From the way the women were crossing the road to the immediacy of the group around us, it all felt contrived and somehow separated from reality, though it was difficult to identify exactly what about it was staged, almost akin to how Jim Carrey felt early in The Truman show.
The lack of any real feeling of guilt, especially after seeing she was conscious, was based in those instincts. A sceptic would say, “yeah, you were drunk.” I was, but it wasn’t that.
The car crash scams I’m aware of in the UK usually revolve around the perpetrator removing the bulbs from their brake lights and slamming on their brakes at night, causing the car behind to rear end them. They oversell the whiplash suffered, claim their reward from insurance companies. Crimes like this, and minor variations, are apparently rife in Cape Town, too.
The most scary of these is criminals, somehow in possession of uniforms and actual police cars, pulling civilians over with the flashing red and blues, casually walking around to talk to them, pulling them out of the car, beating them and stealing the civilian’s car.
But what do you do if you can’t afford a car, whether that be a stolen police car or a standard issue? Well, cut out the middle man and bear the brunt of the impact yourself. It’s not for the faint of heart. In other examples I found, here and here, it relies on areas of the road where the car will be going slowly anyway. It will still hurt, but very unlikely to kill or even hospitalise you.
The lunacy of the attempt I believe we were caught up in is that the speed limit is 80kph. The sheer level of desperation, to put yourself in that much peril for a reward not guaranteed, is sickening. Either it was indeed a trap, delivered with the ineptitude of the Four Lions crew and the added edge of the intention to rob us too, or just two women, incredibly drunk or stupid or both, and a bunch of bored opportunists nearby trying to capitalise. It was never transparent just how affiliated everyone was, which would probably give us the answer. I guess we’ll never know.
As we discuss, Julian tells me about his expertise in a form of Japanese stick fighting. Having been caught up in South African violence before, it lives in the back of his car, something, he tells me, he was very much conscious of when Big Unit was near the car and matters otherwise escalating. Apparently I was wrong in my assumption the madness had reached its full potential. I’m glad it didn’t. Well, mostly.
Had the woman we hit been hurt, the question of remorse would have been complicated. I feel none, and given it was a main road, how easily could she have been killed by a less attentive driver, someone texting or fiddling with the radio, for instance, even if completely sober? I wonder if she’d done it before, and whether she had or not, if the next morning’s headache would put her off doing it again.
Nobody was innocent, but who was the real perpetrator? Realistically, with drink driving sadly incredibly common in the city, anyone could have hit her at any speed. If they had and killed her, would they truly be guilty and deserving of the long stretch behind bars?
It’s a grey area. Ultimately, the incident was mostly a graphic window into the desperation of people forced into such measures, the opportunism necessary to get by. An explicit reminder of my own privilege, too, in a city that offers them daily.
A few days removed, Julian goes to the police station near his home in Hout Bay to report the crime.
The police officers literally laugh him out of there, telling him, yeah, we’ve heard of that scam before, who knows if it was the case this time, but they’re mostly just surprised he even bothered reporting it, none of them would have. Kind of shocking, mostly not. Cape Town, after all, is still Africa.